inside story

From her shadow box artwork to her storied eastside Santa Fe adobe, Lucinda Hoyt fashions her personal experience and singular style into a world all her own.

This article first appeared in Summer 2009 Su Casa

“This is the house of Mary Poppins,” says Lucinda Hoyt as she stirs vanilla Häagen-Dazs and brown sugar into her morning coffee.

“One night in 1943,” Hoyt explains, Santa Fe resident Jessie Orage drove to the red brick Union Depot in the Santa Fe Railyard (today’s Tomasita’s Restaurant) to pick up a visitor from England, the Australian-born author P. L. Travers. “It was September,” she continues. “They went to the Fiesta, and then they came back here and talked all night about a new book [Travers] was writing.”

The book was Mary Poppins Opens the Door, published in 1943 as the third in Travers’ series about a mysterious and magical English nanny. And Orage and Travers are just two among a litany of names—famous and not-so-famous—whom Hoyt declares have lived in or passed through her circa 1898, two-home adobe compound in eastside Santa Fe. “This place is a very old place,” she says. “It has a lot of soul, a lot of character.” Indeed, the two-foot-thick walls of Hoyt’s houses have hosted a diverse cast of characters—from artists Frank Applegate and Arthur Haddock to writers Max Eastman and D. H. Lawrence, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, social maven Mabel Dodge Luhan, and other 20th-century cultural luminaries. Such local surnames as Peña, Sena, Gormley, and Apodaca also have deep history here. But perhaps none of them compare to Hoyt, a resident since 1990 who is as unexpected and alluring as Mary Poppins herself.

Petite and playful, Hoyt hands her visitor a one-word business card to explain the idiosyncratic appeal of her home. “Transmogrifier,” it says. While Random House defines the term as “someone or something that can change or transform its appearance to something else,” Webster’s adds “to grotesque or humorous effect.” Hoyt, however, best describes how she transformed two old shotgun adobes into an original architectural expression of her larger-than-life self.

“I transform things in an upward, humorous way,” she says. “Aesthetics are very important to me, but we have to keep laughing.”

making magic
“My house is like a big box,” Hoyt says, describing her home at the rear of the compound. Composed of small rectangular rooms, it is really more reminiscent of a dollhouse that, at just over 1,000 square feet, is not especially big. But the wildly wonderful artworks and one-of-a-kind miscellanea that fill its sunlit interiors to brimming create an unusual illusion of spaciousness. The collection is a multitextured medley—wood, metal, glass, clay, and more—set against a backdrop of vibrant florals, lace, silks, velvets, and vintage patterns and motifs. Hoyt’s assemblage at once reflects her well-honed tastes, unconventional character, and whimsical spirit; early American portraits rub elbows with Filipino santos, Greek icons, sculptures of Buddha, and classical marble, plaster, and beaux-arts busts. “I don’t know where all these people came from,” she jokes. Photographs, paintings, tinwork, and wood carvings add further depth and diversity. A terra-cotta monkey rides a life-size wooden camel past a window draped in delicate lace. A few feet away, the theme repeats in a painting by acclaimed Santa Fe artist Mark Spencer, who portrays a contemplative Hoyt with a capuchin monkey perched lovingly atop her head.

Nearby, Hoyt’s “upward” brand of home decor is at work in her narrow nook of a kitchen. There, two vintage child’s mannequins, one absent a leg (“The rest of the body parts are in the storage shed,” she says), float from the wood-and-viga ceiling, their prepubescent forms frozen in midair. Across the hall, suspended above the entry to Hoyt’s bedroom, is a large elaborately carved angel from the Philippines. A horn is affixed to its smiling lips, as if to herald one’s arrival. (An identical angel hangs above the toilet.) The room is a lush, dreamy, magical space, where garlands of beaded glass and artificial eucalyptus rain down upon a richly dressed bed; one could sit there for hours waiting for the fairies to appear. If you don’t find them there, try the exterior courtyard, home to a spectacular gilded vintage reproduction birdcage (now a bird feeder) and a 300-pound stone sculpture of the Virgin Mary—Hoyt’s cherished “Our Lady of the Courtyard.”

Hoyt’s house has many moods, and its uncommon beauty is not easy to describe. To call it a “hodgepodge” does not sit quite right with Hoyt, nor does “eclectic,” which strikes her as too convenient a term. The true measure of her residence, she says, is not the sum of its parts, but the source of its parts. “Recycling is my passion,” she says, pointing out that most of her treasures are secondhand castoffs that she carefully handpicked at the Santa Fe flea market and, more recently, at the local Hospice Center Thrift Store. “I haunt the Hospice store,” she says. “I go every single day. I buy whatever strikes me as beautiful. I buy the weirdest things.” Hoyt often repairs or restores the thrift store finds to fit a desired household niche. “I’m a fixer,” she continues. “I’m obsessive-compulsive about putting things together. It’s like creating magic. I have to make everything look beautiful. Everything has its place.”

To be sure, most every free space and surface is occupied by an object close to Hoyt’s heart, though strangely, nothing feels cluttered or claustrophobic. The arrangement is neat, clean, and color coordinated in Hoyt’s free-spirited way. Everywhere a visitor looks, an object looks back; with every turn, something different stands out. It all has an air of comfortable permanence, of being at home, as if none of it could exist unless it lived here.

Among the most eye-catching items are the reimagined works that Hoyt pieces together from disparate remnants of broken or unwanted objects to create a new whole. Among these is a collection of classic 1920s and 1930s vintage dolls restored by Hoyt with period clothes she sews from old lace and with Shirley Temple-style curls cleverly fashioned from antique chain-mail scouring pads. Most striking are Hoyt’s mixed-media shadow boxes, evocative assemblages of varied sizes set with imaginative still-life scenes. Meticulous in craftsmanship—often with layers of framework on the façade—and creative in theme, the boxes are one-of-a-kind works of art that Hoyt makes solely for herself. “I don’t know that I’m an artist. I’ve never had an art career,” she explains. “I don’t really want to sell my stuff. It’s too personal.”

Adorning a wall in Hoyt’s small library is one particularly captivating vignette, a sitting room in miniature showcasing an armchair, cupboard, dining table, and two pet cats. The otherwise everyday scene resonates with meaning for Hoyt, whose grandmother crafted the tiny furniture at the turn of the century. Her portrait—in the form of an antique oval painting on ivory—hangs inside the shadow box wall, along with another of Hoyt’s great-aunt. Three white finch eggs complement these prized family heirlooms, adding a fragile note of purity to Hoyt’s inspired slice of family life.

Other bits of Hoyt’s ancestral history are scattered throughout the house. From books, photo albums, and photographs to military medals and historic documents, Hoyt gives each a place of honor, though she freely admits she fled the East Coast and her well-to-do family years ago. “I had the parents from hell, but later I became more proud of my history,” she says. Every piece is part of the puzzle of Hoyt’s personal journey from the New York social register to Santa Fe’s eastside. Like her multilayered shadow box frames, her life is one story inside another inside another.

the road to Santa Fe
Hoyt’s family tree, as she tells it, is planted amid the founding families of the United States. An early American portrait of her great-great-grandfather, James Madison Hoyt, hangs above her front door, while the kitchen hosts a 20th-century photo of great-grandfather Colgate Hoyt with President William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and other friends from the New York elite. Hoyt can’t exactly recall the extensive roll of Hoyts who came to New York from England in the 1640s, though she notes that modern-day Hoyt Street still bears their name.

By the early 1960s, however, when Hoyt inherited the family boarding school tradition, the rules of high society had grown too restrictive for her freethinking mind. While boarding at Shipley in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, she began joining her roommate on summer trips to her friend’s family ranch in Ranchos de Taos. From then on, New Mexico stayed with her. “I’d never been West before,” she says. “I was stunned. I would always remember how beautiful it was here and that the people were almost foreign. I liked hearing other languages. I made up my mind then that I didn’t want to live on the stuffy East Coast anymore.”

In 1966, after a year at Bennington College in Vermont, Hoyt “ran away” to Aspen, Colorado, until, she says, she “got thrown out.” She returned to New York and spent the rest of the ’60s and ’70s living in the West Village and Woodstock, where she worked for Albert Grossman, manager for Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, at his home and café. When a friend offered a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking Central Park, she moved to work as a baker for New York’s famed Silver Palate restaurant. A year in Virginia followed with a job to catalog a multimillion-dollar art collection at the Mellon family estate. But the life of the elite again proved too much for Hoyt, who bought a one-way ticket out to Athens, Greece. “I wanted to go someplace very primitive after all that excess and grandiosity, all that greed,” she says.

Hoyt spent two years on the Greek island of Patmos before returning to New York. She was 34 and pregnant, and in 1982 she gave birth to her son and only child, Max. When Max turned a year old, she hit the road west again, landing this time in Santa Fe. “It reminded me of Greece,” she recalls. “And nobody here cared about the social register.” Hoyt staged window displays and did other odd jobs to support the pair while living in various rental houses throughout town. In 1990, she discovered this eastside property for rent. Local legend had it that Frank Gormley sold the compound to Severo Apodaca for $10 in 1918. Gormley had bought it from the Sena family, who in turn purchased it from the Peña clan. Hoyt’s place in the compound’s storied history was sealed when she purchased the property in 2003.

thoroughly at home
In the front house, signs of early construction were still evident when Hoyt bought the place. The fuse box displayed a date of 1918, the bathroom fixtures, 1930. In the living room, the floor boards and ceiling beams still bore scorch marks from the fire from which they were salvaged—possibly the one that burned the territorial capitol to the ground in 1892. Hoyt increased the one-room residence to two, converting a dirt-floor garage to an elegant bedroom with brick floors and bancos, and adding a portal that leads outdoors. Today, at 815 square feet, the front house showcases her signature style of recycled art and decor, though in a much smaller collection than Hoyt’s house at rear.

“I put so much work and love into these places; they are my world, my last hurrah,” she says. “I love these houses in a truly visceral way, and I’m happy if I rarely have to leave. Even when I finally leave and all my stuff is gone, these houses will still resonate from all their history.”

Somehow, the idea of these houses without Hoyt is hard to entertain. But “Santa Fe has changed,” she says. “I’m not sure I like what’s happening here.” Someday, her gypsy spirit may wander again. For now, her collection and her houses will continue to follow her winding thrift store trail. “I’m still collecting,” she says. “I’ll never quit.” Thus once a year, Hoyt holds a yard sale to weed out some of her unused belongings—and make room for more.

“People come in droves,” she says, for the rare opportunity to meet a tried-and-true transmogrifier. If not that, she says, “The live dancing girls always draw a crowd.”

Carmella Padilla lives in Santa Fe and has written extensively about the art, culture, and history of New Mexico. Her latest book, El Rancho de las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Ciénega Valley, with photography by Jack Parsons, will be released by the Museum of New Mexico Press in May.